When puzzles are more than a game

Some puzzles are not merely 
idle pastimes for hip teens.

I just watched an episode of the British TV series Sherlock called "The Great Game" where a contemporary version of the Sherlock character matches wits with the evil Moriarty. Sherlock of course is a master at discovering and piecing together connections between all types of clues. But does that sort of character exist in real life?

Then I read this article in The New Yorker about people who are insane about - and insanely good at - crosswords and other types of puzzles:
When Henry Hook was fourteen years old, living in East Rutherford, New Jersey, his grandmother gave him a crossword jigsaw puzzle for Christmas. Designed by Eugene T. Maleska, who became a legendary editor of the Times crossword, the puzzle had three parts. First, you had to solve the crossword puzzle on paper; then you had to fit the jigsaw pieces together in order to verify your answers. When you were done, if you looked carefully you could find a secret message zigzagging through the answers: “YOU HAVE JUST FINISHED THE WORLD’S MOST REMARKABLE CROSSWORD.” Hook was less than impressed. Within a matter of days, he sent a rebuttal puzzle to Maleska. It contained a hidden message of its own: “WHAT MAKES YOU THINK YOUR PUZZLE IS MORE REMARKABLE THAN MINE?

In the thirty-two years since then, Hook has come to be known as the Marquis de Sade of the puzzle world: a brilliant and oddly beloved misanthrope, administering exquisite torture through dozens of puzzle books and syndicated crosswords. But he’s not used to being clueless himself. Standing at the corner of Forty-third Street and Ninth Avenue one Saturday night, glaring out from beneath a Brooklyn baseball cap, he looks both fearsomely focussed and a little disoriented. He’s been brought here, along with a team of other puzzle experts, by a blank scroll of paper—the first clue in an elaborate treasure hunt known as Midnight Madness. From Fortieth Street to Sixtieth Street and from the East River to the Hudson, fifteen teams are scrambling across Manhattan in search of clues, each of which points to another location. Every fifteen minutes, teams can call in to headquarters and ask for a hint; the first team to reach the last location wins.

Half an hour ago, one of Hook’s seven teammates pulled out a tape measure and found that the blank scroll was exactly forty-three by nine inches. That brought them to this intersection, where they’ve been searching ever since. Across the street, a writer for “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and a crossword virtuoso named Ellen Ripstein are scrutinizing graffiti in a phone booth. Catercornered to them, the editor of the Wall Street Journal crossword is standing beside a professional palindromist who is riffling through a bin of adult-education pamphlets. But by now they’re not alone. All around them, spindly cryptologists from fourteen other teams are scanning signs and peering sharply at Chinese menus. Hook’s teammates already look winded—they’re accustomed to more sedentary puzzle-solving—but their opponents are dismayingly sprightly. They are also better prepared: one team has come with nearly twenty members, many of them dressed in black, who are being deployed like ninjas around the intersection.

Hunts like this are the X-Games of cryptology: half wordplay and half extreme sport. The clues are as much as a mile apart, and the organizers—three shadowy figures known to us only by their first names—seem more interested in absurdist humor and elaborate effects than in pure deductive logic. “I hope you know I’m missing my karaoke night for this,” Hook mutters, lumbering past. Given his reclusive ways, it’s a wonder he agreed to join at all, and it’s clear that he expects to regret it. The T-shirt he’s wearing shows a man with thick spectacles irately crumpling an I.Q. test. “Why am I doing this?” the man is saying. “Why am I allowing myself to be humiliated by these moronic puzzles?!”
Read more: The Riddler. Meet the Marquis de Sade of the puzzle world. The New Yorker>>

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